Adapted from a chapter of The Complete Book of Buddha's Lists -- Explained. David N. Snyder, Ph.D., 2006.
Atheism is often seen as compatible with the Buddha's teachings. This is because the Buddha's teachings are humanistic and focused on humans and suffering and the way out of suffering. It is often called a non-theistic religion, which in effect, is also atheistic.
Arguments for non-theism from logic
Scientific and logical analysis does not fit with the concept of a personal-God figure. This does not eliminate the entire concepts of theism necessarily, but does raise valid points against the theory of a personal-God figure. Personal-God refers to an all-powerful creator-God who creates the universe and produces or creates a species in his own image. This God figure allegedly has the features of this species, including hands, feet, beard, moustache, and other human organs.
The Buddha’s Four Noble Truths can be written as a mathematical expression and contains no logical contradictions (see The Four Noble Truths). The same could not be said for the analysis of personal-creator-God theories. Let us first look at the underlying premises of a personal-God theory:
- Premise #1 God is all powerful (omnipotent)
- Premise #2 God is all-good and opposes evil (benevolent)
- Premise #3 God is all-knowing (omniscient)
- Premise #4 God is perfect
- Premise #5 God is alive and has a person form (body)
Nearly all monotheists will agree with the above five premises defining their personal-God figure, which they worship. If we write some of the premises with other facts we know, we can find some logical contradictions:
God opposes evil, is all powerful, and knows that it exists (premises 1 to 3). Yet evil exists and is not eliminated by the personal-God.
God is perfect (premise 4) and God is alive (premise 5). Yet we know that anything that is alive is always changing. Anything that is alive can not be perfect, by definition, since it is changing all the time. Therefore, to remain in line with logic and science, God must either be dead or imperfect. Neither dead nor imperfect would be acceptable to a monotheist personal-God theory.
The above personal-God theories could be written as mathematical expressions and would be written something like:
(An impossible or illogical equation because A must equal P, if G and A are the same and G and P are the same.)
There are other flaws with the personal-God theory, including the existence of natural disasters and the calamities they do to many good and righteous people. But, if we see the universe and the world in more scientific terms, there is no contradiction. Disasters happen due to natural forces and have more chaos and randomness as features than divine justice. Natural disasters occur in all lands, to all people of all religions and backgrounds. Some of the worst death tolls in natural disasters occur in the third world countries, but this has nothing to do with divine justice. The death toll is high in those countries, because typically the housing quality and engineering are poor with few structural reinforcements. Instead of viewing a natural disaster as a divine punishment, we should be asking where was this personal-God to stop the carnage to thousands or millions of innocent children and adults.
Tragedies like that strike all tropical areas regardless of race, creed, nationality, and politics. It just goes to show that nature’s wrath is not purposefully driven by a personal being. Nature just acts in sometimes chaotic means in devastating ways about once every 100 to 400 years. No one knows when the “400 years” is up and where it will hit.
Once we understand the natural forces at work and the fluidity of pleasant and unpleasant experiences in the world, we can ask how we can better prepare for future disasters by reinforcing our homes and buildings.
Dr. Deepak Chopra was interviewed shortly after the terrible Southeast Asian tsunami that killed about 200,000 people. He was asked, “Should the deaths from the tsunami affect our image of God?” Chopra’s response was:
“Actually, our image of God is outmoded anyway, whether the tsunami occurs or not. Religion has become divisive, quarrelsome and idiotic. Religion is the reason we have all this conflict in the world. We have squeezed God into the volume of a body and the span of a lifetime; given God a male identity, an ethnic background; made him a tribal chief and gone to war. Yet people are not ready to forsake their image of God.” (Time magazine, 1-24-2005, page 10)
In this answer Chopra brilliantly describes how religion has become so divisive over this image of God people have had. This image has actually limited God to a simple person, while at the same time stating that only this person could ever be God. In Eastern philosophies, Buddha, Confucius, and Lao Tzu were never considered the only enlightened ones. There were several before, during, and after their lifetimes. Chopra is not quite so opposed to religion as the quote might imply, he is just opposed to the organized ritualistic religions with their exclusive views of God and how that view divides people. Chopra is known as a guru by many and frequently quotes the Buddha. In year 2007, Dr. Chopra even wrote a book about the life of the Buddha.
Once there was a Brahmin who complained to the Buddha that there were too many Brahmins and teachers (in the Hindu culture/religion) who have divided into many sects. The Buddha asked him where their authority came from and the Brahmin explained that it was from the Vedas and belief in the Great Brahma, creator god. Then the Buddha asked, “Is there even a single one of the Brahmins learned in the Three Vedas who has seen Brahma face to face? The Brahmin replied, no, reverend Gotama.” The Buddha said, “not one of these Brahmins learned in the Three Vedas has seen Brahma face to face, nor has one of their teachers, teacher’s teachers, nor even the ancestor seven generations back of one of their teachers. Well, these Brahmins teach a path that they do not know or see, saying, ‘this is the only straight path’ and this cannot possibly be right. Just as a file of blind men go on, clinging to each other, and the first one sees nothing, the middle one sees nothing, and the last one sees nothing – so it is with the talk of these Brahmins. The talk of these Brahmins turns out to be laughable, mere words, empty and vain. It is just as if this River Aciravati were brimful of water so that a crow could drink out of it, and a man should come along wishing to cross over . . . and were to lie down on this bank, covering his head with a shawl. What do you think? Would that man be able to get to the other side? No, Reverend Gotama.” Digha Nikaya 13.9-29
In the above discourse, the Buddha sounds like one of the atheist-scientists of today with talk in an almost humorous way about the absurdity of following an idea which cannot be tested through any of the senses.
The Buddha did not accept the idea that we should count on divine beings to help us and was the ultimate teacher who taught that we must help ourselves. We can wish well for others and even pray for people, but no matter what we do, we cannot change their kamma or our own kamma. We each must face the consequences of our actions, be they positive or negative. When the Buddha was asked by a person to pray for someone who just died, the Buddha bluntly said:
“Suppose, headman, a person would hurl a huge boulder into a deep pool of water. Then a great crowd of people would come together and assemble around it, and they would send up prayers and recite praise and circumambulate it making reverential salutations, saying: Emerge, good boulder! Rise up, good boulder! Come up on to high ground, good boulder! What do you think, headman? Because of the prayers of the great crowd of people, because of their praise, because they circumambulate it making reverential salutations, would that boulder emerge, rise up, and come to the high ground? No, venerable sir. So, too, headman, if a person is one who destroys life, does not keep the precepts, and holds wrong understanding, even though a great crowd of people would come together and assemble around him . . . still, with the breakup of the body, after death, that person will be reborn in a state of misery, in a bad destination, in the nether world, in hell.
Suppose, headman, a man submerges a pot of ghee or a pot of oil in a deep pool of water and breaks it. Any of its shards or fragments there would sink downwards, but the ghee or oil would rise upwards. Then a great crowd of people would come together and assemble around it, and they would send up prayers and recite praise and circumambulate it making reverential salutations, saying: Sink down, good ghee or oil! Settle good ghee or oil! Go downwards, good ghee or oil! What do you think, headman? Because of the prayers of the great crowd of people, because of their praise, because they circumambulate it making reverential salutations, would that ghee or oil sink down or settle or go downwards? No, Venerable sir. So, too, headman, if a person is one who abstains from the destruction of life and keeps the other precepts too, who holds right understanding, even though a great crowd of people would come together and assemble around him . . . still, with the breakup of the body, after death, that person will be reborn in a good destination, in a heavenly world.” Samyutta Nikaya 42.6
“If one could obtain things by prayer or vows, who would not obtain them? For a noble disciple, householder, who wishes to have a long life, it is not befitting that he should pray for a long life or take delight in so doing. He should rather follow a path of life that is conducive to longevity. For a noble disciple, householder, who wishes to have beauty, happiness, fame and rebirth in heaven, it is not befitting that he should pray for them or take delight in so doing. He should rather follow a path that is conducive to those things.” Anguttara Nikaya 5.43
Newton’s third law of motion states that states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Gravity and this law of motion are just natural laws of the universe. There is no supreme deity that makes these forces work. Kamma (karma) works under the same process. It is simply a natural law. Can you imagine a supreme deity sitting in judgment, rewarding and punishing every behavior of every person on the planet or to all beings on all planets? Or even rewarding and punishing all people upon their deaths would be an impossible task as there are countless beings dying every second. Kamma is just an automatic process that is a part of the natural laws of the universe in a similar way that gravity and the laws of motion work.
Theists often argue that God or some intelligent design is the only way to logically answer how the universe or world was created. When asked where their God came from, typical responses are he “was always there” or that “he just arose or came from nothing.” They don’t explain the origin of God in any logical way. The famous scientist, Louis Pasteur showed that there is no spontaneous generation. Previously it was theorized that life might begin and start evolving in some pond or other area at any time. In 1864, Pasteur said “Never will the doctrine of spontaneous generation recover from the mortal blow struck by this simple experiment” (referring to his swan-neck flask experiment wherein he proved that fermenting microorganisms would not form in a flask containing fermentable juice until an entry path was created for them). The smallest microorganisms would not form in the flask as it was sealed from outside air. Similarly in Buddhist Dependent Origination, there is no effect without a cause and nothing arises from nothing. In mathematical terms to say that something can arise from nothing would be written like this:
The above is one over zero, which is an error. If you divide 1 by 0 you come to an error since it is logically impossible. It would require 0 to be multiplied by something to equal 1 which cannot happen.
The Buddhist response to the origin of the world and universe is that the world systems (solar systems) are constantly forming, decaying, being destroyed (over billions of years) and then re-evolving. No first beginning is knowable and it is also not important to overcoming suffering.
The Buddha’s concept of nibbana is a perfect state, but is beyond the dualism of living versus dead, existence or non-existence. There is no personal-God creator in the Buddha’s teachings and the universe is explained in scientific, relativistic terms of beginningless time.
The lack of logic and science in the God-theories does not mean that we need to throw all theistic beliefs out the window. God can be seen as Dhamma or truth. Or it can be seen as nature and natural laws, like the cosmos or kamma. Buddhism is flexible and is compatible with secular humanism, pantheism, and polytheism, as well as atheism. Devas or heavenly beings (angels) can be called upon and even prayed to. These devas can be protectors and provide assistance, but do not have absolute powers or permanence.
A somewhat humorous story exists in the Suttas of Buddhism where a deva (impermanent god or angel) is believed to be the all-powerful creator God by some of the other gods:
One monk went to the Brahma world (heavenly deva realm) through the powers of his meditation and asked the devas a question for which they could not answer. They referred the monk to what they felt was “the Great Brahma, the Conqueorer, the All-Seeing, the All-Powerful, the Lord, the Maker and Creator.” Then Brahma appeared and repeated these lofty titles given to him by the other gods in describing himself. But he could not answer the question of the monk and avoided the question without answering or admitting that he did not know. After being pressed for some answers, finally Brahma admits that he does not know, by saying, “Monk, these devas believe there is nothing that Brahma does not see, there is nothing he does not know, there is nothing that he is unaware of. That is why I did not speak in front of them. Now, monk, you must go before the Buddha and put this question to him, and whatever answer he gives, accept it.” Digha Nikaya 11. 80, 83
Quotes from the Buddha and Pali Canon regarding atheism, non-theism
"He perceives the Overlord as the Overlord. Having perceived the Overlord as the Overlord, he conceives the Overlord, he conceives [himself] in the Overlord, he conceives [himself apart] from the Overlord, he conceives the Overlord to be ‘mine,’ he delights in the Overlord. Why is that? Because he has not fully understood it, I say."
(Majjhima Nikaya 1)
"If God (Brahma) is Lord of all the world and creator of all life, why did he give the world so many sorrows? Why did he not create all the world happy?
If God (Brahma) is Lord of all the world and creator of all life, why did he create so much deceit, injustice and lies and fraud in the world?
If God (Brahma) is Lord of all the world and creator of all life, then this Lord is evil, since he created injustice where he could have created justice."
(Jataka 2, 22, 936–38, Dhamma Wheel Kare translation)
"The Blessed One said: 'On one occasion recently I was staying in Ukkattha in the Subhaga forest at the root of a royal sala tree. Now on that occasion an evil viewpoint had arisen to Baka-Brahma: 'This is constant. This is permanent. This is eternal. This is total. This is not subject to falling away — for this does not take birth, does not age, does not die, does not fall away, does not reappear. And there is no other, higher escape.'.."
..."When this was said, I told Baka Brahma, 'How immersed in ignorance is Baka Brahma! How immersed in ignorance is Baka Brahma!...
(Majjhima Nikaya 49: Brahma-nimantanika Sutta)
"As far as the suns and moons extend their courses and the regions of the sky shine in splendour, there is a thousandfold world system. In each single one of these there are a thousand suns, moons, Meru Mountains, four times a thousand continents and oceans, a thousand heavens of all stages of the realm of sense pleasure, a thousand Brahma worlds. As far as a thousandfold world system reaches in other words, the universe], the Great God is the highest being. But even the Great God is subject to coming-to-be and ceasing-to-be."
(Anguttara-Nikaya X 29)
"God truthfully answers [the questions of the Buddha] in succession: 'Good sir, those views I previously held are not mine; I see the radiance the world of God as passing; how could I say that I am permanent and eternal?'"
(Majjhima Nikaya 83)
"There are some ascetics and brahmins who declare as their doctrine that all things began with the creation by God, or Brahma."
(Digha Nikaya 24)
"That Worshipful God, the Great God, the Omnipotent, the Omniscient, the Organizer, the Protection, the Creator, the Most Perfect Ruler, the Designer and Orderer, the Father of All That Have Been and Shall Be, He by Whom we were created, He is permanent, Constant, Eternal, Unchanging, and He will remain so for ever and ever."
"Again, monks, I [the Buddha] approached those ascetic and brahmins and said to them: 'Is it true, as they say, that you venerable ones teach and hold the view that whatever a person experiences...all that is caused by God's creation?' When they affirmed it, I said to them: 'If that is so, venerable sirs, then it is due to God's creation that people kill, steal ...[and otherwise act badly][/b]. But those who have recourse to God's creation as the decisive factor, will lack the impulse and the effort doing this or not doing that. Since for them, really and truly, no (motive) obtains that this or that ought to be done or not be done...."
(Anguttara Nikaya 3.61)
"If the pleasure and pain that beings feel are caused the creative act of a Supreme God [Issara-nimmana-hetu], then the Niganthas [Jains] surely must have been created by an evil Supreme God."
(Majjhima Nikaya II 222)
"The universe is without a refuge, without a Supreme God."
(Majjhima Nikaya II 68)
"He who eyes can see the sickening sight, why does not God set his creatures right? If his wide power no limits can restrain, why is his hand so rarely spread to bless? Why are his creatures all condemned to pain? Why does he not to all give happiness? Why do fraud, lies, and ignorance prevail? Why triumphs falsehood, - truth and justice fail? I count your God unjust in making a world in which to shelter wrong."
(J VI 208)
"If God designs the life of the entire world -- the glory and the misery, the good and the evil acts, man is but an instrument of his will and God alone is responsible."
"Bhikkhus [monks, the Buddha said, holding a fleck of dung on his fingernail], if even if that much of permanent, everlasting, eternal individual selfhood/metaphysical being (attabhava), not inseparable from the idea of change, could be found, then this living the holy life could not be taught by me."
(Samyutta Nikaya III 144)
"If one could obtain things by prayer or vows, who would not obtain them? For a noble disciple, householder, who wishes to have a long life, it is not befitting that he should pray for a long life or take delight in so doing. He should rather follow a path of life that is conducive to longevity. For a noble disciple, householder, who wishes to have beauty, happiness, fame and rebirth in heaven, it is not befitting that he should pray for them or take delight in so doing. He should rather follow a path that is conducive to those things."
(Anguttara Nikaya 5.43)
Other Buddhist teachings regarding non-theism
"The assumption that a God is the cause (of the world, etc.) is based on the false belief in the eternal self (atman, i.e. permanent spiritual substance, essence or personality); but that belief has to be abandoned, if one has clearly understood that everything is impermanent and subject to suffering."
(Abhidharmakosha 5, 8 vol IV, p 19)
"To begin with, he considers thus: 'Firstly this mentality-materiality is not causeless, because if that were so, it would follow that [having no causes to differentiate it,] it would be identical everywhere always and for all. It has no Overlord, etc., because of the non-existence of any Overlord, etc. (Ch. XVI, §85), over and above mentality-materiality. And because, if people then argue that mentality-materiality itself is its Over- lord, etc., then it follows that their mentality-materiality, which they call the Overlord, etc., would itself be causeless. Consequently there must be a cause and a condition for it."
(Visuddhimagga, Ch. XIX, §3)
"This principle [of Buddhism] means that all conditioned things and events in the universe come into being only as a result of the interaction of various causes and conditions. This is significant because it precludes two possibilities. One is the possibility that things can arise from nowhere, with no causes and conditions, and the second is that things can arise on account of a transcendent designer or creator. Both these possibilities are negated."
(The Dalai Lama)